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What You Didn't Know About How To Play the Tambourine

At first glance, the tambourine may seem like a simple instrument. A single headed drum with jingles around its perimeter, the tambourine is one percussion instrument that can be found throughout the world, from North America to the Middle East.
The most basic tambourine technique involves shaking the instrument from side to side, sometimes striking the hand. In a rock or pop band, the tambourine often keeps the same strict pattern throughout each song, either keeping up a steady stream of eighth notes or sixteenth notes, or falling on beats two and four. In some types of music, the tambourine may be struck on each beat or on beats one and three. In all of these more popular cases, the purpose of the tambourine is to keep the beat and encourage the audience to clap in time to the music.
PHOTO: svenko.net
The tambourine roll can be executed a number of ways. The percussion player may flick their wrist back and forth rapidly creating a stream of thirty-second notes or simply a long run of very fast notes. Some professional percussion players perfect this technique, almost making their wrists whip back and forth, creating an extremely long roll. A professional percussion player in an orchestra will be able to execute extreme dynamics with a tambourine roll, and this is one percussion technique that takes countless hours to perfect.
Professional orchestra percussion players borrow a few techniques from more traditional Middle Eastern tambourine playing. One of these is using the fingers to execute quiet intricate rhythmic patterns on the tambourine. The riq, an Egyptian tambourine often covered in snake skin and extremely beautiful to behold, is played with a combination of shaking and finger technique. Fittingly, the most requested tambourine excerpt required at orchestra auditions is the "Arabian Dance" from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, which requires this quiet finger technique to execute.


An extremely forceful technique involves striking the tambourine with the fist. Other percussion techniques include the thumb roll, where the percussion player wets their thumb and rubs it against the head, and the use of the knee as a secondary striking area in rapid loud passages. The percussion player may also choose to strike the tambourine head using all of the fingers pointed out and together (almost resembling a beak) to execute loud articulate music passages.
The tambourine comes in a variety of styles and sizes. Tambourines used in bands and churches often resemble a variety of shapes, from the familiar half moon shape to those of a fish or even a cross. High school bands often have economy models which sound a bit "tinny" when they are struck. Professional percussion players will have several types of tambourines, some with silver jingles and others with authentic calfskin heads. The tambourine head may be made out of plastic, fiber skin (a synthetic skin), or animal skin. The jingles can be inexpensive materials to brass to silver, while the body may be made of metal or wood. Each tambourine type has a unique sound that is appropriate for a specific music style. It is up to the percussion player's individual taste as to which tambourine to play.

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